As a triathlete, you have probably experienced the pain of a cramp in the calf or foot. Many of us have experienced that half way through a hard swim set — it feels like someone has grabbed hold of your muscle and gripping ever-so-tightly around your lower leg. This condition can be attributed to various factors and, luckily, rarely is serious and can have a simple solution.
An exercise associated muscle cramp is simply the prolonged involuntary contraction of a number of muscle fibers in the muscle. A muscle spasm is the repeated contraction and relaxation of a muscle. Cramps most commonly occur in the calf muscles, arch of the foot or hamstrings. Deep abdominal muscles and the diaphragm (breathing) muscles are also prone to cramping.
There are a few reasons that this type of cramping happens. The first and most common is simple overuse and creating unnecessary tension in the muscle. Most triathletes point their toes deliberately when they are swimming, instead of keeping the ankle nice and relaxed and allowing it to flow back and forth with the kick. This can be conscious, or can be attributed to lack of flexibility in the ankle joint or an unconscious effort to control the ankle.
Another reason could be an electrolyte imbalance or dehydration. This can be because of a previous hard training session that has depleted the body. Muscles need sufficient electrolytes – sodium, magnesium, potassium and chloride-in proper balance, to function properly. An imbalance, or deficiency, of these electrolytes can cause problems with the body’s electrical impulses and lead to muscle cramps and/or muscle spasms. Low levels of any of these minerals can allow the muscle to contract, but prevent it from relaxing.
Lack of muscular conditioning can also cause cramps. If you have taken some time off swimming, or are just getting into it, the muscle might not be used to the type of contraction. Once the muscles can adapt, the cramping will likely self-resolve. Stretching, massage or rolling (foam roller or the stick) will also help the muscle recover faster.
IIdiopathic muscle cramps are cramps that have no known cause, but they are symptoms of a disease, or can be inherited. Sudden nocturnal (occurring at night) leg cramps are an example of this type of cramping.
How to prevent cramping
- If the problem is from deliberately trying to control the ankle, allow your feet to flick around as you kick, the ankles will actually pull back into the correct position automatically. And, even more importantly, when relaxed, the toes will pull the foot back into the correct position without tension. This requires less energy, too, which can be put into the bike or run.
- Stretching and treatment of the ankle joint can help to decrease muscle cramps by giving the ankle a bigger range of motion. This can particularly be helpful if the ankle is restricted in motion.
- For athletes who experience a lot of cramping, good nutrition is important. Adequate fluid and electrolytes may help limit the cramping. Supplementation may be a way to prevent frequent episodes of cramping. Speaking to a registered dietitian/nutritionist, or a naturopath, can help to determine which would be the best action for you.
Treating an acute cramp
Stopping the aggravating movement is usually the first step to get rid of a cramp — usually most people don’t have a choice. Ice or heat can work well to treat an acute cramp. Stretching the calf muscles can also be quite effective. Massaging the tight muscle can help it to relax by getting blood flow and nutrients to the area. If the cause of the cramping is dehydration, then fluids with electrolytes (sports drinks, for example) are essential to balance the fluid loss. Many people will try to “walk it off,” which also helps.
If the cramping continues and is debilitating, be sure to consult a medical professional to rule out any other medical causes.